Benjamin Barber, who has died at age 77, was an agile, adventurous, and enthusiastic scholar who believed that big ideas were needed to address big challenges. So he thought those big ideas, wrote groundbreaking books to put them in context, and formed movements to advance them.
No public intellectual thought so very differently from Donald Trump–a simplistic businessman-turned-president whose ideas are so small, and so frequently wrongheaded, that they promise to inflate rather than address pressing problems–as Dr. Benjamin Barber. But what made him so vital, and what makes his death after a four-month battle with cancer such a profound loss, was his willingness to wade into the great debates of his time, to stir controversy, and to point in radical new directions.
Barber rejected the fearmongering of the right—and of the crony-capitalist and self-absorbed elites who imagine themselves to be “centrists”—and proudly embraced trust, connection, and cooperation. He objected to the world as it is—”dominated by rival multinational corporations and banks, and shaped by competing ideologies and religions that often deny each other’s core convictions”—and proposed the world that might be.
What distinguished Barber was his determination to ground his thinking about the future in statistics, science, and scholarship. He was idealistic. But his idealism was realistic. Arguing that a deep understanding of the economic, social, religious, and technological issues of our times could ease divisions, Barber sought to clear the way for “strong democracy.”
“In a strong democracy people–citizens–govern themselves to the greatest extent possible rather than delegate their power and responsibility to representatives acting in their names,” he wrote in his groundbreaking 1984 book Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age.
“Strong democracy does not mean politics as a way of life, as an all-consuming job, game, and avocation, as it is for so many professional politicians,” argued Barber. “But it does mean politics (citizenship) as a way of living: an expected element of one’s life. It is a prominent and natural role, such as that of ‘parent’ or ‘neighbor.’”
The corruptions of contemporary politics, and the narrow range of media coverage of campaigns and governance, led Barber to seek new avenues for connection and cooperation. His brilliant response to the rise of right-wing nationalism, outlined in books such as If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities (2013) and the forthcoming Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming (2017), underpinned his response to Trump’s election, which he explained in a pair of widely circulated articles for The Nation: “Can Cities Counter the Power of President-Elect Donald Trump?” and “In the Age of Donald Trump, the Resistance Will Be Localized.”